In full bloom: Toxic algae research on Lake Erie

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OREGON, Ohio (WTVG) - Water quality has been a hot topic for several years in Toledo, especially since the 2014 water crisis. Harmful algal blooms, or HABs, have returned to western Lake Erie, and a concentrated effort to study them is well underway.

It's called a "HABs Grab", and it's an ambitious project: Collect water samples from 200 Lake Erie locations in about 4 hours.

The workforce has doubled in size this year thanks to some help from our neighbors to the north. Environment Canada and University of Windsor researchers joined with UT, BGSU and OSU students for the effort, among other local and national agencies.

8 boats gathered up to 25 samples each across the entire western basin of Lake Erie. Some were sent back to a lab in Windsor, but most ended up here at the University of Toledo's Lake Erie Center in Oregon.

"One or two organizations could never do this," says center director Dr. Thomas Bridgeman. "Lake Erie is just far too big. Having 8 different boats out there today collecting samples made us able to do it all within a few hours. We did this last year with US organizations, but this year we added Canadian organizations, so it's that much bigger this year."

Once researchers returned to shore this afternoon, it was all hands on deck to analyze those samples. Emily Beers, a master's student at BGSU, filtered her samples for algal DNA.

"We can tell what kind of algae is growing and run some [tests] to see if it's toxic or not," explains Beers. "There'll be other people filtering for chlorophyll, and nutrients, so there's a lot going on today. We're definitely expecting to see a lot of microcystis and a lot of planktothrix, the two big players in the western basin of Lake Erie."

The end goal here is to estimate the total mass of all those toxins at a single point in time -- possibly tracing back the origins of some strains, and what could make one bloom more hazardous than another.

Dr. Bridgeman offers that "this high-resolution picture of toxin and how it develops -- from nearshore to offshore, from the center to the edges of the bloom -- will help us develop predictions on bloom toxicity."

As far as drinking water goes, Dr. Bridgeman says his University of Toledo team collects samples every week at the intake for analysis, and the major upgrades since 2014 should allay any fears of a repeat event.

"The water utilities now have much better foresight," he says, "and much better advance warning of what's coming towards them."

With continued warm waters for algae to thrive, scientists from both sides of the lake hope to present their findings soon.